Venezuela: A Wealthy Nation Goes Hungry

June 5, 2018

Victoria Yepez, Alliance to End Hunger

(Paul McKinnon/depositphotos.com)

The state of global food security is facing unprecedented challenges.  With the number of hungry people in the world increasing to 815 million – largely led by war and famine-like conditions in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and now the DRC – other situations are glossed over by those interested in food security issues. But there is an ongoing and growing crisis in the United States’ own relative neighborhood.

Among nations not embroiled in war, Venezuela is arguably the world’s worst performing economy, suffering from high inflation rates, debt, dependence on low oil prices, price controls, and incomprehensible exchange rates. Today, over 5,000 Venezuelans are fleeing the country every day. Those who can afford a ticket wait in line for three, four, even up to five days to escape the brutal living conditions. As Venezuelan political refugees search for asylum in South and Central American countries, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and Brazil are feeling the drain of resources and lagging economic development with the massive influx of people. There are 600,000 Venezuelan refugees in Colombia alone. The economic crisis in Venezuela is leaking into and affecting neighboring countries’ food security situations, creating a regional humanitarian crisis. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, deeming it a wealthy country, yet its people are starving. How has this bounteous supply of oil led Venezuela to a failed state?

During socialist Hugo Chavez’s rule, oil prices were high and money flowed into the Venezuelan government. Chavez took advantage of this prosperous time by changing the Constitution for his benefit, enacting media censorship laws, and establishing rigid price controls, driving many foreign companies out of the Venezuelan economy. Under Maduro’s rule in 2014, oil prices dropped and the Venezuelan government was forced to cut back, leading to nation-wide shortages. Individuals who wanted to exchange the Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, for US dollars would only be allowed to change their bolivares at a fixed rate. Many Venezuelans were unable to freely buy dollars leading to the creation of a black market and a high rate of inflation. Privatization of industries, corruption across sectors, and dependency on revenue from oil reserves can all be accredited for the state of Venezuela today.

What does this mean for Venezuela’s food security?

The Venezuelan food system has nearly collapsed, forcing thousands to resort to black market goods. The food packages distributed by the government only reach 12.6 million people, roughly a third of the population. The scarcity of food has affected people’s weight and diets. The majority have lost weight and are going to bed on an empty stomach. On average, Venezuelans have reported losing 24 lbs in body weight in the last year. A quarter of the population is eating two or less meals a day. Substituting ingredients has become nearly impossible with the lack of maize flour for arepas, fruits, and vegetables. Diets are deficient in vitamins and protein, as yucca and rice are staple items.

Investigative reporting and surveys are limited due to the government information vacuum and media censorship, yet Venezuelan universities conducted the 2017 Survey on Life Conditions of Venezuelans. Maria Ponce, one of the study’s investigators says:

The disparity between the rise in prices and the population’s salaries is so generalized that there is practically not a single Venezuelan who is not poor.

With 87% of Venezuelans living in poverty, many resort to violence and crime. Looting and mob violence are common as people break into warehouses, grocery stores, food trucks, and the last standing farms. The desperation can be felt as millions of Venezuelans wait in line every day at government-regulated markets to walk away with nothing.

Human Rights Watch reports indicate the maternal mortality rate has spiked 65% and infant mortality has risen 30%. Cases of severe malnutrition of children under 5 years of age and infants increased to 14.5%, trespassing the World Health Organization. Maduro has suggested people start raising rabbits and eating them to solve the hunger crisis, further showing the disconnect from the government in regards to its people. UNICEF has expressed concern for the decline in children’s nutritional well-being.  The prevalence of wasting has risen to 15.5% for children under five. UNICEF calls for a short-term response to counter malnutrition that includes nutritional surveillance services for communities. Barriers to international aid stand strong with Maduro’s administration in political turmoil and accumulating debt interest. The Venezuelan crisis is at a turning point: either international efforts mediate between the government and opposition or the Venezuelan people will continue suffering.

As Venezuela enters the worst period of political strife and turmoil it has ever faced, international aid and humanitarian relief is needed. The Venezuelan people who remain in the country are bearing the brunt of economic and political chaos, including an increasing inability to put food on the table and in their children’s bellies. While not a long-term solution, aid from the international community would act as a temporary band-aid to the problems Venezuelans face. Only significant changes in national governance and political will through global leadership, will lead to sustainable and long-lasting prosperity for the Venezuelan people.